Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Art of Celebrity Apologies

I did a recent interview with The Clyde Fitch Report which dealt with the phenomenon of celebrity apologies. If you'd like to see it, click here. But the topic brings up a couple of complementary issues which I'd like to explore.

First off, what do we mean when we say a celebrity apology? I think we would all agree that when a celebrity gets some kind of blowback from the media for a statement, that's usually a good time for an apology. The level of apology can depend on several factors - for example, how were the offensive comments communicated? Did they come in the form of a court deposition, such as Paula Deen? Were they conveyed second hand, through another source, and if so, how credible is that source? Were they in the course of an interview, such as with Marlon Brando's comments on live television with Larry King about Hollywood being controlled by Jews?


The next factor is the likeability of the celebrity - and this is crucial. This can be controlled by many things, such as the celebrity's good looks (or lack thereof), their charm, their public persona. Athletes, if they are still active, can wipe away our misgivings simply by performing at an unusually high level or winning a championship. As was said of Babe Ruth, "You can't boo a home run." I would argue there is vaguely a political component at work as well, but this depends on what was said, and the person saying it. Paula Deen's case illustrates this.

You will recall in John Irving's "The World According to Garp," Garp's mother Jenny Fields writes a book entitled "Sexual Suspect," about the plight of women who do not allow themselves to be defined by their associations with men. Some celebrities are what we might call "cultural suspects" - in other words, you don't know what their politics are, but you think you do. If the media perceives the person as progressive, (and this can depend on any number of factors) they may be willing to believe or accept their apology. But if they think the person is conservative, even if the celebrity isn't particularly conservative or even political, then their leeway may be a little more tenuous, especially if they've said something that can be interpreted as racist, bigoted, homophobic or otherwise offensive. I don't mean to say that ideology is the total determining factor. I just think it's one of them. It should be said that ideology has for some replaced personal conduct as the determining factor in whether someone is morally good or bad. Activism for some causes can overshadow an injudicious word or a few bad decisions.

Once you determine the level of apology needed, then it's time to decide how abject the celebrity should be. A pet peeve of many people I've talked to is what we might call the "non-apology apology," which goes basically something like this:

"When I was on camera, I made a few statements about the killing of small kittens that may have offended some people who were watching. If someone was offended, then I sincerely apologize." 

This is the kind of apology that is usually crafted by a publicist and e-mailed out to the bloggers. There is very little here that acknowledges any kind of wrong. It basically telegraphs that the celebrity does not personally feel they have said anything that was, in fact, offensive. Instead, it merely apologizes for the bruised sensibilities of those idiots out there who obviously need to grow up.

There is the opposite extreme, as exhibited by Ms. Deen. It's interesting that her weeping on the Today Show was deemed somehow insufficient to the moment. Which brings up another question - when is it appropriate for a celebrity to cry? One might argue that the celebrity is caught in a Catch-22 - If they cry, it illustrates their humanity and makes them more than just a name that we either celebrate or resent. However, humanizing them may in fact make us more susceptible to our harsh judgments, since we no longer see them as larger than life.


In his book "Popular Crime," Bill James makes a point that American media has entered what may be termed the second golden age of yellow journalism. Yellow journalism flourished in the world of towns with multiple newspapers, which eventually competed with early radio. In an attempt to get eyeballs, newspapers were as gritty, turf-protective and territorial as the newsboys who literally fought for space on sidewalks. This inspired some papers to make up news, or to distort minor news out of proportion to its relative importance. Remember Charles Foster Kane's famous line - "If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough." This ended, James argues, with the excesses in the coverage of the Lindbergh kidnapping and trial of Bruno Hauptmann, and with the consolidation of some newspapers. By the coming of television, the classy way of journalism - objectivity, understatement, deciding the relative importance of news items as opposed to celebrity gossip - was ascendant.

That is until the coming of cable television, and eventually the Internet and social networks. Now, a giant beast needs constant feeding for information. And rather than a few outlets deciding how to categorize the importance of this or that item, instead the page views and search engine optimization do the task. Crime and entertainment news is once again ascendent. That doesn't mean that celebrity kerfuffles aren't worthy of our attention - as James points out, we gravitate toward them because they usually illustrate larger narratives. In the case of most celebrity apologies, they reenforce the dominant story of public discourse in American society over the last fifty years - the revolution in civil rights among race, gender, class and sexual lines. And an emphasis on supposedly trivial news is by no means a new phenomenon brought on by the Internet. Just a cursory reading of Mark Twain's autobiography will tell you that.


The celebrity apology, as I indicated earlier, hinges on a crucial point - how much do we look up to these people? Do we idolize them? Do we want to be them? Or do they simply serve as a convenient target for our disgust? Does their presence in our collective consciousness illustrate for us some great truth about the good or the bad in the world? The scene in Oliver Stone's Nixon, when Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) has just decided to resign personifies this struggle. Nixon, wandering through the White House, unintentionally finds himself confronted by the portrait of his nemesis, his one-time colleague, the ghost hanging over his presidency, the martyred Jack Kennedy.

"When they look at you, they see what they want to be," he tells the portrait. "When they look at me, they see who they are."

When should a celebrity apologize? Any celebrity has to realize that there is a battle of warring percentages out there for anyone with fame - the slice that like them, the slice that doesn't know they exist, and the slice that hates their guts. For some celebrities, a misstep can upset the delicate boundaries of those percentages. Some people will only know them because of their impolitic words or deeds. Others will have liked them in the past, but write them off. There may even be some people who didn't like them, but come over once they see the media piling on, in effect. For some, a celebrity will be their stand-in on the world stage. A threat to that person is a threat to them, personally. Or conversely, that celebrities success at avoiding public persecution will be a personal affront to them.

On a spiritual level though, the celebrity apology can leave us with one indisputable fact. Many seek solace in the promises of Christianity because of the assurance that Christ's sacrifice allows for free, unlimited grace. The idea of an entire lifetime's sins washed away and forgotten forever is staggering to us, because we know that it is beyond our own abilities to offer the same to anyone else, even ourselves.

We can forgive the famous - and even the infamous - many things, but at some moment, there is a point of no return. To apologize means to seek forgiveness. Our reactions to these apologies, which grow more ridiculous seemingly with each new occurrence, remind us that while God may freely forgive all things, we are more exacting, and less gracious.



Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Bob Dylan - Voice of Every Generation?



I saw Bob Dylan as part of the Americanarama Tour last week in Atlanta. I wrote this last year for an event on the occasion of Bob Dylan's birthday. I previously wrote about Dylan here.
 
This is not going to be your standard celebration of the greatness of Bob Dylan. On the occasion of Bob's birthday, I'm not here to give you something you're probably read a hundred times about all of his folk anthems, or his artistic fearlessness, or his political significance. I don't really care, and I'm not interested if you do care, about how his music has made the world a better place or given it meaning. If it has, you probably haven't been paying enough attention to what his songs actually say.

You see, Bob Dylan was not the voice of my generation. Not at first, anyway.

A little background, and then maybe you'll understand. I was born in 1970, the year Richard Nixon entertained Elvis Presley in the White House. When I was born, Bob Dylan released his "Self Portrait" album, the most universally loathed release of his career. He was in a creative slump and unsure of himself after producing a string of seminal albums, any one of which would have been enough to cement anybody else's career. A myth endures that Dylan was intentionally trying to sabotage his image at this point, to demystify himself from the folk god, then rock god, he had become. He was a married father trying to turn a page.

By the time I was conscious of him about 15 years later, he was charitably called a legend, which is a polite way of saying what he called himself later - "a worn-out star." He had just alienated many of his most ardent fans with a trilogy of uncompromising Christian albums, and he was settling into a string of late eighties works with a bloated band and lackluster songs. My high school classmates used to give their best imitations of his portion of "We Are the World."

And to top it off, frankly, he annoyed me. I was a child of the eighties, which meant that I grew up viewing the sixties through a jaundiced eye. Dylan, frankly, symbolized everything I detested about the Baby Boom generation - its endless self-celebration, its elevating pop culture to the status of religion, its obsession with refighting the same political battles over and over. Besides, the guy had a voice like a rusty chainsaw running out of gas.


So I politely declined in the fall of 1990 when Dylan came to Tuscaloosa to perform at homecoming while I was a student at the University of Alabama. I rolled my eyes as I heard friends talk rapturously about hearing him sing "Tangled Up In Blue" and thought to myself, yeah sure. Ban the Bomb. Make Love, Not War. Blah blah blah.

I really knew it all, didn't I?

Almost immediately after that, two things happened. First, I began to really discover Bob Dylan. Not the legend that I was already sick of hearing about, but the actual artist. And second, Bob started yet another career renaissance, the most improbable of his life.

My first actually appreciation of Bob's music came when I played "Subterranian Homesick Blues." To any kid who grew up listening to rap music, what Dylan is doing here doesn't sound all that unfamiliar. But his word play, his inventiveness, the slick way he carelessly tosses off the words gets under your skin. It stays with you. He seems to be saying, as every kid ever born says at a certain age, "They really don't care all that much about us, do they?" When you're a certain age, you don't care who "they" are. "They" is shorthand for the whole world.

But Dylan didn't stay in his 20s forever, and neither did I. It's amazing how a public figure can grow in your estimation the longer he stays in the public eye. Dylan simply wore out my generation, giving hundreds of live shows a night all over the world in what became known as "The Neverending Tour." Then, there was his health scare in the late 90s when he hovered near death for a while, only to emerge with his most celebrated album in years, "Time Out of Mind."

In one of those quirks of fate he is famous for, Dylan followed that up with an even better work, "Love and Theft," which appeared on music store racks on Sept. 11, 2001. I was on vacation at the beach, but when I saw the Towers fall and heard him sing, "High Water Everywhere," you didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing that day. A few years later, here he was again with "Modern Times." But Dylan was true to form, peopling his songs with characters waiting on trains instead of sending out tweets and status updates on Facebook.

In these three albums, it would be easy to say that Dylan cemented his status as rock's elder statesman, passing judgment as he always has on a world gone wrong. But that is also one of those too-easy labels, like calling him the spokesman for his generation. Yes, of course, "Blonde on Blonde" or "The Basement Tapes" are worth hundreds of listens on your turntable or iPod, but Dylan sounds like a man who actually knows what he's talking about in "Ain't Talkin'."

He's experienced life. He's not singing some borrowed thoughts from some old bluesman. He's been kicked to the curb by his best friends and he's come back to name a few names. Perhaps the best statement you can find is his Oscar-winning "Things Have Changed." In its lyrics, he trots out the Bible, the jitterbug, a gallows, but he's never sounded so current. People are crazy and times are strange, but he, like us, has seen it all before, and he is bound for something eternal. "Don't get up gentlemen," he cautions, "I'm only passing through."

If you live long enough, you're bound to see anything. When I first encountered Bob, he was famously squeamish about interviews and somewhat aloof from his fame. Now, Bob Dylan has done a Victoria's Secret commercial. He recorded an album of Christmas music that sounded at the same time like an elaborate prank and the most fun he's had in years. He hosts his own radio show, but declines to play his own songs. He has passed seven decades and shows no sign of slowing down.

And me? I'm forty now, about the age he was when I formed my first wrong-headed assumptions about him. But I see him now as a man who isn't content to be what other people expect him to be. He isn't interested in celebrating the past. Even when he performs the songs people never tire of hearing him sing, he changes the arrangements to make them almost unrecognizable. Though he borrows from virtually every source, he manages to create something original and lasting.

A survey recently showed that one in seven people think the world will end in their lifetimes. So maybe at last I can recognize Bob Dylan as the voice of my generation. And every other one as well.

There's nothing to worry about, he says, tongue firmly in cheek, because it's all good. The answer is...well, you know the rest.

 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Orwell's "1984": The Kingdom of Big Brother Is Within You



George Orwell’s “1984” is a best seller again, thanks to revelations of government surveillance and the perpetually American belief that there is a movement afoot to subvert the nation. This instinct is one we inherited from the Founding Fathers, and it has largely served us well. It keeps large scale political movements from holding onto power longer than a generation. We get suspicious easily, and in Orwell’s 20th century novel of totalitarianism, we have a brilliant story that caters to our fears, entertains us, and at the same time confirms our darkest suspicions.

Like many of my generation, my first exposure to the novel was in the year “1984,” when western democracy took the book off the shelf, looked around the landscape, and patted itself on the back when it did not see a figure comparable to Big Brother. But Orwell wasn’t necessarily interested in giving us a blueprint for how an all-encompassing dictatorship might happen if (or when) it does – his work’s power lies not in its ability to anticipate those fears to their logical conclusion. Instead, he may have inadvertently stumbled onto the logical end, not of totalitarianism, but unlimited freedom.

In “1984,” Oceania exists because of a great war, which has wiped away the previous governing powers and replaced them with an emergency government. The regime must have a perpetual crisis in order to continue its existence. The nation is ruled by a charismatic leader, and certain kinds of conduct are forbidden in order that the state survives. Citizens are constantly watched for disobedience (not only by a secret police but by each other), and that vigilance later escalates into a search for mere unorthodoxy at every level. Class or individual distinctions are seemingly wiped out in order to blend everyone together, and technology is used to keep the state in a position of power. Scarcity and want are repackaged as privilege and prosperity. History is controlled, even language is controlled, and there is always an enemy who must be defeated. There is enough here to make the easily fearful on either the left or the right in 2013 America suspicious.

Winston Smith’s life has been copied in various works of dystopia that followed – there is a minor character who mimics the rhetoric of the leader. There is a forbidden book that hints at another way. The hero is allowed to entertain the idea that the world might be rescued, or at least, his world. And that world turns at the moment the hero asks the unthinkable question, “Am I happy?”



Thomas Pynchon points out that one of the parlor games of “1984” is looking at the current landscape of this or that society and pointing to what Orwell got right, and what he didn’t anticipate. We have to remember that Orwell didn’t set out to write a definitive critique of totalitarian communism – he was a far-left socialist. What he was interested in was the ability of modern society and ideology to go a long way in wiping out the ability of the individual to define himself. When the novel opens, Winston Smith indulges in perhaps the most subversive thing he can do, outside of his affair with Julia – he begins keeping a diary. Why is this subversive? Because the individual cannot define events, or his own life, in a state-controlled environment. That is the sole privilege of the ruling power. What Oceania attempts to do is wipe out the individual, systemically at first, and if that proves unsuccessful, eventually through torture and brainwashing.

While Orwell got the technological aspect of the “Big Brother” state correct – in its ability to define the past and watch its citizens – there were a few things he didn’t even bother worrying about in his pitch-black future. For example, ethnic tension seems absent. The Party, we are told, has people of virtually every class in its ranks and leadership. But any government that encompasses multiple ethnicities and cultures will always feel tension, especially in the central question of who is making the decisions. What Orwell needs for his dystopia to work is a very docile populace, but he can get that, since he’s its creator.

Also absent is religion – any religion. Instead, devotion is poured out to the state. It is a feature of leftish visions of the future that religion is easily disposed of. The idea behind it is that enlightenment rationalism will eventually triumph and people will understand that the faiths they cling to are as vain as those of our ancient ancestors. One paradox of totalitarian cultures has been that, no matter how hard the state presses, the pressure tends to make faith even more passionate. Christianity survived in Shogunate Japan for centuries despite the best efforts of the executioner, and the church thrived in Communist China even in the crucible of the Cultural Revolution. One can make a case that Christianity surviving the Inquisition in any recognizable form is as much a facet of the faith as the zealotry that inspired the evil in the first place. A completely atheistic Oceania assumes a great deal of the people Winston Smith puts his faith in – the proles. Faiths all over the world do not survive on the hopes of intellectuals or party functionaries, but on the rank and file, the workers; the people who make our societies, free and enslaved, work. The state, any and all states, eventually prove themselves poor repositories of our dreams. The closest the language of “1984” ever gets to religious devotion is during O’Brien’s torture of Winston. Consider:

“The command of the old despotisms was ‘Thou shalt not.’ The command of the totalitarians was ‘Thou shalt.’ Our command is ‘Thou art.’”

Only later does O’Brien inform Winston that “God is power.” By this time, the use of the word “God,” even by the state torturer, seems utterly subversive.

But another faith is absent from “1984,” and that is the defining characteristic of democracy, socialism, communism and even fascism: faith in the inevitable triumph of human civilization. All governments are based on narratives, and the stories they tell must be hopeful in order to keep the population convinced of the state’s viability. Think of any speech by any president – even Jimmy Carter’s notorious “malaise” speech ends with a ridiculous flourish calling on Americans to say something good about the country, and to renew the nation’s spirit. Orwell’s vision of the future is not hopeful and does not end on a happy note – Winston is happy, but he is happy because he has totally surrendered to Big Brother and the idea of Big Brother. He knows that with this triumph, he no longer has to worry about running afoul of the state. Think again of O’Brien’s words:

“The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. … the object of power is power.”   

At any moment in a democracy, there are millions of people who feel out of power. They can respond in many ways – contempt for the ruling party, belief in the opposition (or anger at its powerlessness), pessimism that the current rulers are changing the country beyond salvation, or optimism that the nation is too strong to be destroyed. Indeed, there may be the temptation to feel all of these emotions simultaneously. That is why “1984” continually finds enthusiastic readers, no matter who is in power.  



But the work is pliable enough to give comfort and warning across the political spectrum. Take the three slogans of the Big Brother regime – War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. If you do a quick Google search, you will find all three slogans used ironically in blogs, tweets or postings against each of the last three presidents of the United States.

Modern governments all over the globe convince themselves that a constant state of preparation for war is a deterrent to war, even as they are already engaged in war. The idea of finding freedom in complete obedience is, curiously enough, a religious idea, borrowed from Christianity with the state replacing the divine as the seat of devotion. The third slogan is more pertinent to our time – the idea that not knowing the whole truth, or even a partial truth, means that you rely totally on another to tell you that which you need to know to survive. What should be frightening to modern society is that, in our society which thrives on information technology, such a thing is already happening.

Think about it – how many people, on both left and right, rail against the news media for hiding the truth about this or that issue? But when they look for information to back up their opinions, they invariably turn to the same news media, which presumably can’t hide everything from those clever enough to see through it. Ideologies have now caught on to the idea that by having networks of bloggers, news services, polling services and other information networks, they can perpetually create a narrative that reinforces their beliefs, regardless of the facts. What results is a society where people never recalibrate their ideas based on new information, but instead explain away challenges as being extraordinary. Where no one ever wins an election or an argument, because whoever wins is illegitimate. Circumstances that might otherwise contradict their most closely held beliefs are instead examples of how right they are. In “1984,” the citizens engage routinely in conspiratorial thinking – trying to pick out the real news behind the fake, and interpret the real aims behind this fact’s prominence and that one’s obscurity. “What is the design behind the news? Where are we headed? What don’t they want us to know?”

Orwell’s great fear is of a society of automatons – incapable of thinking or feeling for themselves, eager to believe whatever is fed to them and unconscious of a common past or future. His great mistake was in probably believing the state was necessary to make this happen. There are now more ways than ever before for human beings to define themselves, a power that was unthinkable in the past. In modern society, people can differentiate themselves by fashion, by material wealth, by speech, by their sexual preference (and even their gender), by transcending class, by gaining fame or infamy, and by isolating themselves from it all. There is belonging available to virtually every role through communication. Every avenue is available, with only a little effort and luck. This is what almost total freedom looks like, on a scale even Orwell would have found unlikely.

But how many of your friends’ Facebook statuses look exactly the same? How many times do they share with you the same images, videos, or faulty facts? How often do we dismiss a certain piece of news because it does not fit into our neat ideological categories? How many tweets do you read that seem like an untold number of other tweets? How often do the same stale jokes clog up your phones from people who have all convinced themselves they are original, funny, and utterly unique? The danger of modern society may be not of automatons created by the state, but created by the culture, who all look utterly alike while they are all the time convinced they are different. Add to that an atmosphere of cynicism and irony, where even the worst news about society gives us new fodder for snarky comments, an atmosphere where history is dismissed as irrelevant, the product of a conspiracy. Where people stay in barely defined roles or avenues handed to them by their politics or culture because they do not believe there is any way to something else. Suddenly you don’t need Big Brother watching you – “1984” is within you. 

I also wrote about the NSA surveillance scandal in relation to Francis Ford Coppola's film "The Conversation" here. 



Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Citizen Kane: Who Is the Greatest?


A cynical, slightly silly old man sits in a nursing home, begging a reporter for a cigar. He is, as a long-time friend remarks, suffering from old age, “the only disease you don’t look forward to being cured of.” And in the middle of answering the reporter’s questions about events in the now distant past, this elderly veteran of New York’s 19th century newspaper wars says, almost offhand, “Of course, a lot of us check out without having any special conviction about death, but we do know what we believe in. We believe in something.”

The speaker is the ancient Jed Leland, and like many of his fellow characters in “Citizen Kane,” Leland’s observation says a lot without saying much of anything tangible. The underlying statement seems to be a recurring theme in the film – the passage of time, and the humility it forces on us all. But it also illustrates the multiple meanings that we as individuals perceive, ascribe and sometimes force onto our lives and the lives of others. What do we believe in, assuming we believe in anything at all? 

“Citizen Kane” routinely makes it onto lists of the greatest films ever made, and just as routinely sits at the top of most of them. Entertainment Weekly was the latest this month, calling Orson Welles’ immortal first movie the greatest motion picture ever. There are many reasons for this – its use of cinematography, its rich backstory and the identification we as film buffs feel in associating its title character with that of Welles, and his contemporary inspiration, William Randolph Hearst. But I don’t wish to write about “Citizen Kane” in those terms, since this has been done much more expertly and much more extensively by people who can devote insight into Gregg Toland’s images, or Bernard Herrmann’s score. Instead, I want to pay attention to the story, strangely enough perhaps the least appreciated of all of “Citizen Kane’s” many fascinating aspects. One might ask, even though there is no overtly religious content, if “Kane” is the greatest Christian movie ever made. As I’ve stated before, the absence of Christ from a work of art can also attest to His presence in the world. What does the fictional life of Charles Foster Kane say about Him? 

Kane (Welles) is a newspaper tycoon, a man who owns an empire of newsprint at the turn of the century in America, and parlays his personal fortune into fame and power. He is a uniquely American success story – his wealth built on a gold mine that providentially fell into his family’s lap. And so Kane rises from poverty to the pinnacle, nearly parlaying his yellow journalism into a political career. However, his affair with a singer (Dorothy Comingore) hastens his downfall, and his megalomania results in him leaving behind two wrecked marriages, his only heir dead, his life lasting long enough to see most of his wealth and power stripped away, until he is almost totally alone. His last, enigmatic word on his deathbed, “Rosebud,” sends a reporter, Thompson (Wiliam Alland) on a quest to unlock its meaning. Though he doesn’t learn what “Rosebud” was, we the audience do. But we are not fully sure what it really means. There is a sense when viewing “Citizen Kane” that while we may understand the story in part, like a single human life, there is something that we are missing which keeps drawing us back. We feel that just because a particular life, a particular story, has been recognized in part, that does not mean that it has been fully understood. The film is, as Jorge Luis Borges declared, “a metaphysical detective story.”



‘Who do men say that I am?’

We know that when Welles first began casting about for stories to film, one of his first ideas was adapting Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” but with a twist – the camera would be the narrator, and we would view everything from the perspective of Marlow, whose face we might never see. “Kane,” though, is this concept in reverse – we view the life of Kane but not over his shoulder. Instead, we view it through the lives of friends, business associates, and those who perhaps knew him best. The question of “Rosebud” gives us a mystery, and a window into the man. These “witnesses” to Kane’s rise and fall are his guardian Walter Thatcher (George Colouris), his business associate Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), his friend Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), his second wife Susan Alexander, and his butler (Paul Stewart). But because Welles allows each different witness to tell the story in part, we see different facets of Kane. He’s the same man, of course, but we understand him in a more fully-formed way. 

Take Thatcher for example. When he first encounters Kane, his charge is a boy, unaware that his mother has signed him over to a bank, in effect. From their first meeting, Thatcher sees Kane as a bad seed, and he is made complicit in the boy’s flowering. As we continue with Thatcher’s story, we see the old banker as perhaps feeling misunderstood, or even cheated by how the boy turned out, yet Kane is unapologetic toward him. Because he is suddenly wrenched from them, Kane is forever left as a boy straining to regain his forgotten toys, left beneath the falling snow. He wants new buildings, new passions, new objects of love and new worshippers. Later on, when Thatcher confronts the young Kane in the newspaper office, we see Kane as a great figure – full of wit, and willing to pick a fight. He perhaps cares about people and his power enough to seem a responsible fellow, even as he picks a fight that he hopes will develop into a war for the sake of his circulation numbers. We see Thatcher shaking his head at a familiar argument he has probably had thousands of times with this willful little boy, now fully grown and playing havoc with the economy. 

That makes us feel for Kane only a few minutes later when we witness one of his humiliations. It is in 1929, when Kane is humbled by the Depression, that he declares, in front of his old guardian, that if he hadn’t been very rich he “might have been a really great man.” Thatcher seems surprised that Kane doesn’t believe he already is, and genuinely interested in knowing what Kane would rather have been. Kane’s answer, as might be expected, is in a way affectionately poisonous to his old guardian. That animus is all the two of them have ever known of each other. 

Thompson next goes to Bernstein, who is the most loyal to Kane of all the people the reporter interviews. For this reason, it is Bernstein’s sequence that allows us to see Kane at his most favorable. Bernstein is a money man, but he doesn’t see the mere accumulation of wealth as a great accomplishment. Bernstein obviously sees Kane as a remarkable man whom he had the pleasure of serving. Remember it is Bernstein who recounts the moment of Kane’s Declaration of Principles, his version of the Shema , his one commandment– I am the publisher, and you will be my people. There were things about him unpleasant, but he did great things. Bernstein seems to be the only character who feels comfortable enough with who he thinks Kane was. For him, the inexplicable was a part of Kane’s character. 

Leland’s entry into the story is necessary for two reasons – to give insight into Kane’s marriages, and insight into how Kane treated his friends. Leland is like Kane, in that he grew up in privilege, though his family lost everything. And Leland is in his youth an idealist, which is what draws him to his friend Charlie. Many years later in the nursing home, the old Leland is still bitter about Charlie’s failure to live up to his best hopes. That is why he begins the story of Kane’s fall.

But their relationship is a complicated one. For example, why does Kane finish Jed’s scathing review of Susan’s operatic performance? Because he still feels for his friend, and he wants to rekindle his friend’s hero worship. Writing such a review would be true to their younger selves. But if that’s the case, why does Kane then fire Jed even though it is he who finishes the review? Because he has to – his own employee can’t show up his wife. Kane tries to buy off Leland’s favor to no avail. Leland responds by sending him back the Declaration of Principles, as worthless as the torn-up check. What is the Declaration now? “An antique,” Kane declares, as he knows about himself what Jed later says, that he never had a conviction except himself. 

Susan’s story takes up half of Jed’s recollections, and her piece dominates the final part of the movie. Her story, consequently, is the most important in unlocking the mystery of who Kane is. Kane meets Susan on his way to a warehouse to see relics from his past – the antiques from his mother. He is alone on this personal “sentimental journey,” when he first encounters his future second wife. Who is Kane? Well, she doesn’t know who he is – this means she’s simple. He seems flabbergasted that she likes him, even though she doesn’t know who he is. (Is Kane talking about the private man, or the public one?) But it is telling that the first time we see the snow globe that inspired Kane’s final word, it is in Susan’s apartment on their first meeting. 

There have been intimations of a Freudian connection here, that Susan in some ways reminds Kane of his mother.  We know from Jed Leland that Kane knew immediately what kind of woman she was – a less educated, presumably more pliable mate. But he sees in her simplicity something he has been aching for, and he begins making her over into what he wants. This brings up an interesting question – does her innocence attract Kane and simultaneously make him want to transform her into something like himself? Why does she have to be an opera singer, and not just a singer? Because he’s Charles Foster Kane. How can his wife be anything other than just as grandiose as he? Her greatness reflects back on him. It is telling that later, when Kane frantically claps after her first performance, he stops just at the moment when the spotlight finds him. In the end, Susan too wants love on her own terms, just like him. That is what drives her away. 



‘Who is the real Charles Foster Kane?’

Using the storytelling devices of montages, flashbacks and a non-linear timeline, we assemble a rough sketch of who we think Charles Foster Kane was. But one of the reasons the film continues to work 70 years after its creation is that the film doesn’t really answer definitively that question. In fact, we aren’t even sure whether Kane is a good man who goes bad, or a bad man who only wanted to fool people into liking him. In the original trailer for the film, Welles tells the audience that he doesn’t know what to tell them about Kane. He is “a hero, and a scoundrel, a no-account and a swell guy, a great lover, a great American citizen, and a dirty dog. It depends on who’s talking about him.” He invites the audience to decide for themselves. 

Or does he? Welles’ use of light, camera angles, deep focus photography and long takes to depict action were identified by the critic AndrĂ© Bazin as the most accurate way of depicting life. But these devices are not neutral in telling the story. For example, when Welles puts his signature to the Declaration of Principles, his face is shadowed. This gives us the impression that his motives are not entirely pure. As stated before, when Kane claps, by himself, for Susan, the spotlight finds him – revealing him, so to speak, as more interested in his own glory. He will not be made a fool, he later insists, as though he now sees himself exactly as such. We never really see Thompson’s face, since he functions as the audience’s stand-in, but also because his life, for the purposes of this inquiry, isn’t important. Some faces, some lives, are without illumination. Some lives deserve explanation, and some do not. Some lives explain themselves, and some beg for obfuscation. By doing this, Welles tells the story, but he is also subtly indicating how we should feel about Kane, even if we perceive him intellectually as something else altogether. The complicated portrait that follows is more lifelike as a result.

“Love is not the subject of ‘Citizen Kane,’” Welles said, many years after the fact, a surprising statement for multiple viewers of the film. It seems to us that the film, if it’s about anything at all, is about the pursuit of love. It is possible Welles meant romantic love, which is certainly true. Kane doesn’t seem to burn with romantic passion for his women as much as he burns with an unfulfilled longing. Does he need his mommy? Kane does seem starved for mother love. His father felt he needed “a good thrashing,” but his mother curiously decides to show her devotion to him, to protect him, by sending him away. 



The word “Rosebud” sounds feminine, but it is later revealed to be the name of Kane’s childhood sled, left back in Colorado. So it is revealed as a childish thing, a sentimental thing, but that endears him to us, in that we realize how far away Kane possibly traveled from the thing he missed most – the person he could have become if he had never left the security of Mrs. Kane’s Boarding House. Welles said the “longing for the garden,” for the untroubled past, was a common trait of humanity and civilization. 

But that explanation of “Rosebud” doesn’t ultimately satisfy us, because “Rosebud” seems to be so much more than just the name of a sled, or a time of life. For example, what is “Rosebud” to Kane when he says it? Is it a memory, or a plea, or question, or a statement? What if Kane had said, for example, “Jesus,” on his deathbed. We might wonder at the context. Religious affirmation? Profanity? Request for salvation? But by saying “Rosebud,” he seems to be saying something more than just the name of a sled. Can “Rosebud” explain the beginning of the picture and the end, with Kane an almost godlike figure ruling over a rotting empire, deciding what is truth and what are lies, who is celebrated and who is ignored?  When he tells Bernstein (and Thatcher) that he might have been a really great man, he obviously isn’t talking about his wealth or power. He means greatness in a moral sense, and this has eluded him. 

‘He got everything he ever wanted’

Jesus’ own statement about greatness – “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” (Matthew 20:26) – indicates how things might have turned out for Kane. If he had meant his principles, if he had been the figure in his campaign speech, then maybe he would not be the hollowed, broken figure at the end of his life. We learn more from the man who breaks him, Boss Jim Gettys (Ray Collins). There is nothing personal about it; Gettys is merely interested in survival. He just wants to destroy Kane before Kane destroys him. You can see a creeping admiration for the publisher, even in his contempt, because he gives Kane an opportunity to save himself. But Kane choses “the love of the voters” rather than the security of his family, and he loses both. Gettys understands something else about Kane through his decision to press on– his arrogance, as personified by his affair with Susan. He knows that Kane will need “more than one lesson” to understand what he is throwing away. Kane appeared to be a servant, but he is revealed as something else – a man pursuing his own reflection in the crowds that cheer him on. He believes he can tell them what to think. 



Kane’s death at the beginning of the picture establishes a pattern – of limited time. Thompson has a deadline to make in discovering the meaning of “Rosebud.” He must talk to Kane’s associates, all of whom are old. (Except for Thatcher, who is dead, and his memories are found among his papers.) When Thompson sits with Leland, Leland tells him this young doctor of his wants to “keep him alive.” Leland frustrates this by wanting cigars. He is “cursed” with memory. He seems to regret Charlie dying alone, but it doesn’t keep him from rendering merciless, bitter verdicts on his friend’s life, because time has run out on them all. And there is perhaps the most poignant moment in the film, which has nothing to do with the larger story - the speech by Mr. Bernstein about memory:

“A fellow’d remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day back in 1896 I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it, there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress, she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.” 

It’s interesting that Bernstein’s version of “Rosebud” is again a feminine image. But he is telling us about the problem of time, how it runs out, and how the human heart holds onto moments that are inexplicable even to itself. Happiness may only last a fleeting second, in a crowd, never to return. It is delicately feminine in its makeup, but mercilessly masculine in its advance. “Citizen Kane’s” use of time – jump cuts, montages, time lapses – all underline the brutality and the fragility of time. We only get a little while to do what we think is right, and not much more of an opportunity to make things right. 

At the picture’s end, one of the reporters standing among Kane’s artifacts wonders what all of it is worth. “Millions,” Thompson says, “if anybody wants it.” Left unspoken is that if no one wants it, it’s all worthless. It is almost impossible to watch the film without remembering other words of Jesus – “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26) This is the other unspoken theme of the film, the idea of value and meaning. What will we give up to get back our souls? 

We begin by searching for the meaning of “Rosebud,” but the real question being asked is what does Kane’s life mean, with all the striving, bellicosity, anguish, perfidy, humiliation and celebration? We sense the meaning is in the flames that consume his sled. Rosebud is junk to be discarded, as the butler nearby casually smokes a cigarette, unaware of its meaning. The music is like that of a horror picture. The moral is that the things most important to us may be worthless to the rest of the world, or in the greater scheme of life. The world often misses the point of our lives, as do we. The missing piece in all the jigsaw puzzles is ourselves, to invest them with meaning. But we ourselves search for meaning, because the picture the puzzle forms is still incomplete.  Thompson doesn’t find the missing piece, but neither did Kane. 

I remember the first time I saw “Citizen Kane.” Even already coming to the picture knowing that “Rosebud” was the name of his sled, I walked away from the screen with an incredibly hollow, nameless feeling, terrified of what my life might become if I was too careless. It is fitting that Kane’s cherished memento, stripped of value by his death, is consigned to flames. Kane has lost his life, forfeited his soul, and all that is left behind is a vast collection to be sold off or destroyed. Just a stack of jigsaw puzzles, and a parade of mirrors stretching out into infinity. 


Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

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Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
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Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
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This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
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This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here.